Published May 1, 2000
M:I-2, directed by John Woo and written by Robert Towne, is like the original Mission Impossible (1996) in being a postmodern-style romance of technology. The earlier film, which was directed by Brian de Palma, did for the deus ex machina what Shakespeare did for the Aristotelian unities, which is to say that it blew the all old rules and prohibitions out of the water. Neoclassical critics used to think it funny and a sign of bad art when an author discovered that he’d got his characters into difficulties he couldn’t well get them out of and so was forced to introduce into the proceedings a divine personage of some description winched onto the stage in order to suspend the usual laws of nature and get the good guys off the hook. In Mission Impossible the machinae were virtually the same as the dei, and both were as plentiful and as unremarkable as beetles.
It was still funny when the old god is lowered from the flies, but now it was good-funny. The god and the author were laughing with us at the absurdity of their intervention in what might otherwise have appeared to be human events. So when Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt laughingly undertook to break into the secure vault at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, in order to steal the most secret information that the CIA possessed, we knew at once that he would succeed. In Mr Woo’s film, we have only to see the “self-destructing” talking sunglasses delivered from headquarters and we know already that the allegedly “impossible” mission is already in the bag. Or, if we didn’t, the point is driven home by Mr Cruise’s spectacular self-rescue, which we have just witnessed at the point where the sunglasses arrive, after he has been dangling by his fingertips from an isolated butte in Utah. Impossible escapes are what this guy does for recreation.
Both films offer us the cinematic equivalent of Tertullian’s maxim: we believe because it is impossible. Presumably it would not make it onto the screen in the first place if it were only difficult or unlikely. But the great god into whose mysteries we are made initiates is technology. Deus and machina are again functionally equivalent. Thus, in Mission Impossible, when Hunt is crawling through the air-conditioning ducts at Langley (one trusts that the real CIA has since taken the trouble to make its ductwork less accessible) and finds a laser screen which might otherwise prevent his egress from the ducts into the vault, he reaches back into his little tool-kit and takes out—what else?—a laser screen neutralizer! No doubt he just picked one up at Radio Shack. For every measure there is an instantly available countermeasure already in the omniscient MI bag of tricks.
Obviously, a film like this one sets little store by either plausibility or suspense, and M:I-2 is clearly out of the same stable. But there are also some new, Wooish wrinkles. On several occasions, for instance Mr Cruise’s hero is seen in unfamiliar and shocking situations, as the ally or the victim of terrorists. Thereupon, like John Travolta and Nicholas Cage in Mr Woo’s Face/Off (1997), he peels off the high-tech prosthesis covering his face to reveal that he is really one of the bad guys, or that one of the bad guys is really him. In one situation, the ever-reliable MI tool kit apparently allows him to apply this elaborate latex makeup in the space of about ten seconds, not only to himself but to his antagonist in one of the film’s acrobatic kicking-fights. And this amazing feat of speed-maquillage is all so that the ally of the latter will think (briefly) that the fight has come out the other way—his way—and will too late discover that he has finished off not Hunt but his old pal and henchman.
One cannot but wonder what kind of audience takes pleasure in being deceived in this perfunctory, almost contemptuous fashion? Presumably, in the technological romance pace and timing are everything, so there is just no time to lay down a false trail for the reader to follow. Instead, something happens to divert us for a moment from the inevitable conclusion to which all has been tending, then the characters pull off their faces, or take out of some pocket or bag the necessary machine or weapon, and we are instantly back on track again. Instead of a narrative switch-back, it is a journey on greased rails to the point at which Mr Cruise and his love-interest, Nyah (Thandie Newton), an Anglo-Caribbean cat-burglar with a heart of gold, foil the plot of a terrorist gang led by a former MI colleague called Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) to infect Australia with a killer virus.
In favor of this film (as opposed to Mission Impossible) the plot is at least more or less comprehensible, if still wildly implausible and politically paranoid. A Russian scientist (Radé Sherbedgia) working for an Australian pharmaceutical company called Biocyte has developed both the horrible Chimera virus and its antidote, Bellerophon. The wicked head of Biocyte, amusingly called John McCloy (Brendan Gleeson), makes a brief appearance on behalf of the evils of capitalism, explaining that his company can make a fortune by spreading this deadly virus and then selling people the patented antidote. Naturally the terrorist Ambrose, who stole the thing from the Russian scientist, killed him and crashed the commercial airliner in which he had been traveling to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, chooses to forego his multi-million dollar ransom in favor of stock-options in Biocyte.
On the case is not only the rather depleted MI force, consisting of Mr Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the hulking computer genius Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and an Aussie helicopter pilot called Billy Baird (John Polson), but also the fetching Nyah, who comes into the caper as a former girl-friend of Ambrose. Having formed a sexual liaison with this allegedly conscience-less thief, Hunt is forced against his own conscience to appeal to her (fortunately robust) idealistic side to make her return to this monster, who continues to carry a torch for her, so that she can lead Hunt’s men to him—with the help of an implanted homing device tracked by Luther on his trusty laptop. Of course she is discovered and, in an effort to save Hunt from the terrorists, injects herself with the virus.
This self-inoculation makes no more sense than that of the Russian scientist, which begins the film, but it leads to a climax in which there is a race against time to get the antidote to her, or her to it, before she dies a horrible death. She, being not of the initiate and therefore of little faith, pleads with Hunt to kill her swiftly: “I’m infected with chimera; you haven’t got a choice. Do it; do it now!” It is the language of real human drama, which often takes place in reaction to situations where the characters really haven’t got a choice. But in the technological romance where anything is possible, there obviously is no situation of no choice. “We’ve got 20 hours,” says Hunt (typically, the virus’s point-of-no-return is precisely defined). “I’m not going to lose you.” So, of course, he doesn’t. As there is never the slightest doubt in our minds that he will, there can be no charm in the movie’s drama or suspense. Audiences must flock to it only for the thin pleasure they can take in the fantasy of seeing all human difficulties magically eradicated by machines.